Ultrasound waves of appropriate frequency and intensity are not known to cause or aggravate any medical condition.
The value of ultrasound imaging as a medical tool, however, depends greatly on the quality of the equipment used and the skill of the medical personnel operating it. More accurate results are obtained when ultrasound is performed by a clinician skilled in sonography. Basic ultrasound equipment is relatively inexpensive to obtain, and any physician with the equipment can perform the procedure whether specifically trained in ultrasound scanning and interpretation or not. Patients should not hesitate to verify the credentials of technologists and physicians performing ultrasound scanning, as well as the quality of the equipment used and the benefits of the proposed procedure.
In cases where ultrasound is used as a treatment tool, patients should educate themselves about the proposed procedure with the help of their doctors—as is appropriate before any surgical procedure. Also, any abdominal ultrasound procedure, diagnostic or therapeutic, may be hampered by a patient's body type or other factors, such as the presence of excessive bowel gas (which is opaque to ultrasound). In particular, very obese people are often not good candidates for abdominal ultrasound.
Ultrasound includes all sound waves above the frequency of human hearing—about 20 thousand hertz, or cycles per second. Medical ultrasound generally uses frequencies between one and 10 megahertz (1-10 MHz). Higher frequency ultrasound waves produce more detailed images, but are also more readily absorbed and so cannot penetrate as deeply into the body. Abdominal ultrasound imaging is generally performed at frequencies between 2-5 MHz.
An ultrasound scanner consists of two parts: the transducer and the data processing unit. The transducer both produces the sound waves that penetrate the body and receives the reflected echoes. Transducers are built around piezoelectric ceramic chips. (Piezoelectric refers to electricity that is produced when you put pressure on certain crystals such as quartz.) These ceramic chips react to electric pulses by producing sound waves (they are transmitting waves) and react to sound waves by producing electric pulses (receiving). Bursts of high-frequency electric pulses supplied to the transducer cause it to produce the scanning sound waves. The transducer then receives the returning echoes, translates them back into electric pulses, and sends them to the data processing unit—a computer that organizes the data into an image on a television screen.
Because sound waves travel through all the body's tissues at nearly the same speed—about 3,400 miles per hour—the microseconds it takes for each echo to be received can be plotted on the screen as a distance into the body. The relative strength of each echo, a function of the specific tissue or organ boundary that produced it, can be plotted as a point of varying brightness. In this way, the echoes are translated into an image.
Four different modes of ultrasound are used in medical imaging:
A-mode. This is the simplest type of ultrasound in which a single transducer scans a line through the body with the echoes plotted on screen as a function of depth. This method is used to measure distances within the body and the size of internal organs.
B-mode. In B-mode ultrasound, a linear array of transducers simultaneously scans a plane through the body that can be viewed as a two-dimensional image on screen.
M-Mode. The M stands for motion. A rapid sequence of B-mode scans whose images follow each other in sequence on screen enables doctors to see and measure range of motion, as the organ boundaries that produce reflections move relative to the probe. M-mode ultrasound has been put to particular use in studying heart motion.
Doppler mode. Doppler ultrasonography includes the capability of accurately measuring velocities of moving material, such as blood in arteries and veins. The principle is the same as that used in radar guns that measure the speed of a car on the highway. Doppler capability is most often combined with B-mode scanning to produce images of blood vessels from which blood flow can be directly measured. This technique is used extensively to investigate valve defects, arteriosclerosis, and hypertension, particularly in the heart, but also in the abdominal aorta and the portal vein of the liver.
The actual procedure for a patient undergoing an abdominal ultrasound is relatively simple, regardless of the type of scan or its purpose. Fasting for at least eight hours prior to the procedure ensures that the stomach is empty and as small as possible, and that the intestines and bowels are relatively inactive. This also helps the gallbladder become more visible. Prior to scanning, an acoustic gel is applied to the skin of the patient's abdomen to allow the ultrasound probe to glide easily across the skin and also to better transmit and receive ultrasonic pulses. The probe is moved around the abdomen's surface to obtain different views of the target areas. The patient will likely be asked to change positions from side to side and to hold the breath as necessary to obtain the desired views. Usually, a scan will take from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the patient's condition and anatomical area being scanned.
Ultrasound scanners are available in different configurations, with different scanning features. Portable units, which weigh only a few pounds and can be carried by hand, are available for bedside use, office use, or use outside the hospital, such as at sporting events and in ambulances. Portable scanners range in cost from $10,000 to $50,000. Mobile ultrasound scanners, which can be pushed to the patient bedside and between hospital departments, are the most common comfiguration and range in cost from $100,000 to over $250,000, depending on the scanning features purchased.
Jennifer E. Sisk M.A., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,